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Who Should Take the Lead in a Crisis?

With no barriers to entry, every public relations firm in the U.S. – and many around the world – now appear to offer “crisis communications.”

They don’t. At least, all of those who claim to don’t.

Crisis work requires a different – and often counterintuitive – skill set from the traditional practice of public relations.  It’s also an art form where more often than not we’re helping clients figure out not just what to say, but what to do, which isn’t something learned from a book.

For more information about how to separate true crisis firms from PR firms, including the 7 questions you should ask, click here.

There are actually very few firms with deep crisis management, issue management and risk management expertise.  Hennes Communications has that expertise — and so does our colleague, Tony Jaques,  CEO of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes. Tony’s latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.

Recently, Tony wrote a piece titled Who Should Take the Lead in a Crisis.  No matter what kind of organization that you work for, we think you’ll find this to be a worthwhile read.

Who Should Take the Lead in a Crisis?

By Tony Jaques

Which management discipline should play the lead role when a crisis threatens reputation? This question sometimes exercises the minds of lawyers and communicators.

The rise of social media has increased the danger of getting it wrong and the costly consequences for reputation. Yet the argument continues about who should take the lead in a crisis.

Some have argued the chief legal officer is “uniquely positioned within the organization to lead this effort,” which is a position which should not go unchallenged.

A lawyer’s viewpoint is well suited for reputational risk arising in legal cases. But most reputational crises are not necessarily about legal cases and require an understanding of broad stakeholder expectations, which is indisputably the realm of public relations or corporate communicators.

The type of risk

While reputation can be an important factor in litigation, it’s a mistake to think that litigation is the primary platform for reputation risk.

Think no further than the survey by Yahoo Finance in December, which declared Meta (formerly Facebook) as the worst company of 2021. It is noteworthy that this unwelcome title was not primarily the result of legal or regulatory breaches but for perceived failures in the fields of management and ethics.

It is a common misapprehension in many companies that reputation risk is mainly about financial and regulatory compliance. This is often indicated by a narrow scope of risk identified in the corporate risk register, which is generally managed within the finance department.

Corporate compliance is an obvious risk area where accountants, auditors, and lawyers play a crucial role — or even take the lead. But headlines around the world make it clear that reputation risk beyond just financial and regulatory compliance, potentially leading to crisis, is just as great — if not considerably greater.

Who takes the fall

Consider the recent reputational debacle suffered by online lender, when Founder and CEO Vishal Garg thought it was a good idea to fire 900 people via Zoom. During the call, Garg bluntly told soon-to-be-fired team members that “if you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off…Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.”

Was it legal? Probably, though the company’s legal and governance advisors appear not to have reacted publicly.

By contrast,’s Head of Marketing Melanie Hahn, Head of Public Relations Tanya Hayre Gillogley, and Vice President of Communications Patrick Lenihan, all promptly resigned, and the incident made headlines around the world.

As usual in most corporate crises, we don’t know what legal advice was sought or provided, but it seems a fair assumption that the likelihood of reputation-sapping decisions by the CEO would not have been on’s formal risk-register — if they had one.

The required skillset

While it is generally true that CLOs are credible and authoritative voices in communicating with boards, risk committees, and management, it doesn’t mean they have the specific skills or experience to take the lead in a crisis. In fact, many respected experts argue to the contrary.

For the rest of this excellent article, please click here.


For more information about Tony Jaques:


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